Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Promises, Promises

What does the Broadway season of 1968/1969 and this past season have in common? One of the dreariest seasons for new musicals on record and the delight of a production of PROMISES, PROMISES. For some reason, PROMISES, PROMISES never became one of the thirty or so shows continually revived everywhere year after year, but it was one of the three most successful musicals that came out of that 1968/1969 season. And then the show all of a sudden became dated. However, now in the age of MAD MEN it is chic again. Moreover it is good and funny, delightfully quirky and tuneful and is headed by two great stars in Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. Other Broadway stalwarts, Dick Latessa as the doctor and Katie Finneran as Marge (who isn’t a pick-up) are equally wonderful, with Finneran largely contributing about fifteen of the most hilarious minutes I’ve ever seen in the live theatre.

The other big hits of that 1968/1969 season were 1776 and ZORBA. That’s it. Two other notable shows that missed were DEAR WORLD and CELEBRATION. So, the very good, very funny, very topical PROMISES, PROMISES racked up 1,281 performances and then disappeared. The score gave us hit songs with the title song, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and a kind of cult hit Christmas song, “Turkey Lurkey Time.” This new production squeezed in another Burt Bacharach hit “I Say a Little Prayer” and it felt squeezed in, but Rob Ashford’s choreography made it an entertaining addition all the same. “A House is Not a Home,” was also added and sat in the score nicely.

Neil Simon wrote the book, staying true to Billy Wilder’s screenplay for THE APARTMENT, and Hal David wrote the lyrics to Burt Bacharach’s unusual tunes. Unusual because this was not the traditional voice of Broadway at all, yet Bacharach was able to take his pop music style of the day and use it in a theatrical way. Largely thanks to Bacharach, PROMISES, PROMISES has its unique character. The show is a sparkling light in an otherwise disappointing season. And there were two other great musical revivals too, but somehow they couldn’t sell enough tickets to stay open. Revivals of RAGTIME and FINNIAN’S RAINBOW were nothing less than gifts to Broadway, but it was the formerly dated, now suddenly relevant PROMISES, PROMISES that made it through the summer. I believe that this show could stay open with replacement stars. Any number of good people would be successful in it, but sadly, when Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth leave by the end of December the production will call it quits.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In the Heights

Kyle Beltran as Usnavi

Now a little over two years in to the run, IN THE HEIGHTS has a nearly new cast, though Priscilla Lopez as Camila and AndrĂ©a Burns as Daniela are still plugging away with seemingly fresh performances. Usnavi, the narrator created by the composer/lyricist of the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is now being played admirably by Kyle Beltran, who had originated the role on the national tour. American Idol’s Jordin Sparks is currently playing Nina, though she was out at the performance I caught and instead the very wonderful Gabrielle Ruiz was in the role. Ruiz is usually in the ensemble and also understudies Carla and Vanessa. However, she seems ideal as Nina, the Stanford college student who looses her scholarship and ends up back home in the depressed Washington Heights of New York. It shows a certain humility that Lin-Manuel Miranda would write a staring role for himself and yet give over most of story emphasis to the other characters. Although Usnavi is established as the narrator and therefore the leader of the show, importance is placed on Nina’s story about how her parents will help her get back into college so she can become the first college graduate of the family. Usnavi’s job is to observe his neighborhood and his little story about asking Vanessa (Marcy Harriell) on a date and fixing the refrigerator in his crumbling bodega sits secondary to everything else. The character of the show for me was the elderly Abuela Claudia, still being played by the tremendous Olga Merendiz. Her big number, “Patience and Faith,” which comes after she has won the lottery is tremendous––one of the great Broadway moments in contemporary history. Everyone in Washington Heights, it seems, dreams about getting out. They are a marginalized population––the working poor––and America’s promise of dreams coming true do not come easily if at all. Still, they dream and after spending two and a half hours in the company of this neighborhood, most of them leave. Probably they should leave, one thinks, but when Usnavi decides he will use his inheritance of Abuela’s money to rebuild his business and stick by the neighborhood I did feel that I got the happy ending for the neighborhood that I didn’t even know I wanted. IN THE HEIGHTS, with it’s compelling music, street dancing, charming characters and good will, is a true joy on many levels. First of all it was like the little engine that could, when it moved to Broadway and unexpectedly won the Best Musical Tony Award. It was filled with Broadway newcomers––fresh talented faces who had “made it.” It was totally original––made from scratch without having been based on a well known book or film title––and it succeeded big time. Broadway loves a success story and this show represents the fulfillment of all the dreams of the characters come true.

Friday, September 10, 2010


After a US and UK tour, including last year’s stop at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Noel Coward’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER from Director/Adaptor Emma Rice and England’s Kneehigh Theatre is now on Broadway. By staging the film BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the seriousness of the story is lost and in place is a good dose of comedy. This is perfectly fine, for this very creative and original production has made its own world and rules. Added into the mix are projections by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll and original songs by Stu Baker to Noel Coward’s lyrics. This was not a musical per se, but characters did break into songs which revealed character. Other songs were used to serenade the action. The ensemble of actors could all sing and play multiple instruments. The British cast is back, save for two singing characters now being played by Americans. Damon Daunno, plays multiple instruments and sings with a unique and pleasant voice throughout the show. Gabriel Ebert, a near replica of the original “Stanley,” Daniel Canham, was not as dynamic, but crooned with charm. The story follows the accidental meeting and short lived love affair of Laura and Alec. Hannah Yelland as Laura, played the comic style while simultaneously bringing forth the sadness and real dramatic conflict required of the role. Tristan Sturrock, who has been a regular actor with Kneehigh Theatre for the past twenty years made an admirable Alec, managing those 1930s overly romantic lines with passion and credibility––not to mention a humble and sweet singing voice. Although, the intimacy of their performances is lost is the larger Studio 54, making the comedy of the production the dominating element over the pathos.

Taking place in an English train station refreshment cafe and populated by the variety of workers typical of such a place, the story showed various couplings in the early stages of romance. But, the central couple is misguidedly embarking on a romance for they are each married with young children. They meet on Thursdays over a period of several weeks, falling in love quickly and feeling guilty about their relationship, but unable to let go of it until Alec is offered a job that will take him to Africa. The romance awakens these two people––perhaps jolting them into change that will open up their futures to greater things. The relationship has its place and purpose after all and although it is an adulterous one, it is hard to not sympathize with their situation. One thing that makes it easier to accept is that Coward wisely does not introduce us to Alec’s wife and children, so we have no affection for them. Laura’s family is seen, but here the children are clever puppets and the husband (Joseph Alessi) is depicted as a kindly bore, uninterested in Laura’s life outside the home, unconcerned with how his children are parented and mostly concerned with his crossword puzzles. We sort want her to escape such an unexciting world––at least we can’t blame her when she meets her enthusiastic doctor.

The production was as much the star as any one actor in it. The projections say that this play was once a movie (rather well known at that) and that although that movie will be lovingly honored, it will also be torn apart, re-imagined, and explored in new ways. Laura and Alec start their first scene from the audience, as if they were at the movies. On a screen there is, we are told, a movie called “Brief Encounter” showing. Laura’s husband walks into the frame, looks out to the audience and calls for Laura to come back. Eventually she leaves Alec in the audience and literally steps into the movie screen, transforming into a projected image. Her world is a black and white movie––she is stuck in the frame. Off screen is the train station cafe, Alec and a bright and colorful world. The story is as compelling in this new stage adaptation as it is a film. The production is innovative, endlessly creative, musically enchanting, sad and quite hilarious all at once. BRIEF ENCOUNTER still ranks as one of the top ten best productions I’ve seen in New York in the past ten years––a highlight of the decade.